What Does The Electorate Really Think About Immigration?
A study by think tank British Future, published in November (2014), suggested that voters lack faith in the ability of politicians to address the challenges of immigration. And it suggests that, rather than holding negative views on immigration and immigrants, what people really believe is more complicated, and surprising, than the opinions and views politicians attribute to them.
British Future's three-year investigation into public attitudes towards immigration certainly shows that public attitudes are not as straightforwardly hostile as is often assumed.
“When they talk about immigration the public is moderate, not mad,” the report's authors conclude. “Most people aren’t desperate to pull up the drawbridge and stop all immigration, nor are they crying out for more of it. Instead they’re somewhere in the middle: worried about the impacts on jobs, public services and on the ‘Britishness’ of our culture; but aware of the benefits to our economy.”
A separate piece of research confirms that Britain benefits both economically and in cultural richness from its immigrants, and has quite a good record of integration. Skilled migrants have brought many economic and social benefits over the years, according to the study by University College London's Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration.
Benefit cheats? Actually, no.
Immigrants who arrived after 1999 were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives, in the period 2000-2011. And recent immigrants were also less likely to claim benefits and live in social housing than people born in Britain.
According to a recent British Social Attitudes survey, living close to immigrants appeared to make people more tolerant of them. Residents of multicultural London have the most liberal views. On the other hand people living in some of the least diverse parts of Britain were the most sceptical about immigration.
For example in a poll during the recent by-election in Clacton four times as many people there said the issue was the most important to them as cited the economy as a pressing issue, though only 4% of Clacton residents are foreign-born, compared to 13% nationally.
Yet another recent study suggests that public (and politicians') concern about “benefits tourism” is also overstated. (EU workers and job seekers who come to the UK have access to its welfare system on essentially equal terms with British citizens. This has led to the idea that some migrants might be taking unfair advantage of the UK welfare system.)
The work, by two Oxford academics, was published (October 2014) by the London School of Economics on its British Politics and Policy blog. Looking at recent EU migrants of working age who are not students, not in employment and receive some kind of state benefit, it comes up with an estimate of 39,000 people. This is less than 1% of all foreign nationals in the UK and only 1% of all EU nationals in the UK.
Educated in London
Then there is the interesting claim that the diverse make-up of pupils in London’s schools explains why the capital outperforms other parts of the country in academic attainment.
Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol, points to a “London-premium” in what he calls “pupil progress” – a measure of how a pupil improves their grades between Key Stage 2 (11-years-old) and their GCSEs (16-years-old).
Prof Burgess said that the “higher pupil aspiration, ambition, and engagement among migrants” in London’s schools is the reason for their success. While children from immigrant families were not inherently different, their social situation is likely to make them more ambitious. He found that relatively recent immigrants typically have greater hopes and expectations of education, and are, on average, more likely to be engaged with their school work.
So what happens next? Even before the election, David Cameron is on a collision course with Brussels over his determination to toughen immigration control. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already stated that she will not yield on restrictions to free movement within the EU.
EU officials and politicians from other member states have joined in the protest, saying the proposals to limit EU migration into the UK strike at a basic principle on which the union is founded.
In a rare intervention former UK Prime Minister John Major (November 2014) argued for a “pragmatic solution”, based on limiting the flow from the EU into UK for a “shortish period of time”. This would avoid breaking freedom of movement rules.
Stand by for an immigration-dominated General Election.